From acerbic folk-balladeer, to electric Judas and sandpaper-voiced cowboy, Bob Dylan has been through various incarnations. However, at the heart of his music, whether he’s been singing folk anthems, such as The Times They Are-a Changin’, rocking out on the likes of Wiggle Wiggle or mining a murky blues vein on songs such as Not Dark Yet, the poetry of Dylan’s lyrics shines through.
While his peers wanted to hold your hand or couldn’t get no satisfaction, Dylan was singing about complex political and social issues. His legacy can be seen in bands and artists as diverse as Neil Young, The Charlatans and Jimi Hendrix. While trying to chart Dylan’s incredible career is hard enough, we’ve decided to try and do it around eight of our favourite Bob Dylan images from the Music Poster collection. Here goes…
After befriending Woody Guthrie and spending a solid year on the Greenwich folk circuit, Dylan started to write. His first self-titled album was released in 1962 and, although there were only two original songs in a sea of covers, Dylan’s half-spoken-half-sung singing style saw him break into the mainstream. Lean, otherworldly, and always with a cigarette dangling from his lips, the young Dylan seemed wise beyond his years and wasn’t afraid of speaking his mind in interviews.
Over the next four years, he released an astonishing six albums, including The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. This period of his musical career was possibly his most prolific and gave rise to some of his most enduring songs, including Blowin’ in the Wind, Subterranean Homesick Blues and Like a Rolling Stone.
With a faint whiff of Elvis about him and an unparalleled lyrical dexterity, Dylan soon found himself as the unofficial mouthpiece for the burgeoning protest movement. Songs such as The Times They Are-a Changin’, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and Blowin’ in the Wind were adopted as anthems by those protesting against the likes of the Cuban missile crisis, the escalation in the Cold War and countless civil rights issues.
During the mid-Sixties, Dylan had become increasingly uncomfortable with his enforced position as a poet for the people. 1965’s Maggie’s Farm saw him writing a protest song, protesting about just that. However, these ill-fitting shoes also lead him towards experimenting with electric guitars, something that his folkier followers saw as something of a betrayal.
1966 saw him take things a step further, as part of a world tour. He’d already laid the foundations at the Island Garden Arena, in New York, by dividing his set into two halves. The first half was what the fans had come to love and expect: Dylan, on his own with an acoustic guitar. The second half, however, couldn’t be more different. Backed by The Hawks (later to become The Band), the hipster’s hero plugged into the mains and ploughed his way through a searing series of songs.
However, the biggest reaction came from the UK. Blonde on Blonde had just been released and Dylan was due to play a gig at the Free Trade Hall, in Manchester. After strumming his way through his acoustic numbers, he returned with The Hawks. During the blistering second half, the audience became increasingly uncomfortable until, as Dylan was introducing Like a Rolling Stone, this now-notorious exchange took place between him and a member of the crowd:
Dylan: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” (to the band) “Play it f***ing loud.”
The 1970s saw no sign of the songwriter slowing down. During that decade, he released 15 albums, although three of them were concert recordings, The Basement Tapes was unreleased material from the 1960s and Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid was a film soundtrack. However, in the mix, you’ll find some more bona fide classics, such as New Morning, Blood on the Tracks and Desire. Looking beyond the confines of folk and blues, Dylan dipped his toes in the waters of country music, which was to become a lifelong passion.
The Seventies also saw Dylan’s sartorial sensibilities undergo an overhaul. Gone were the sharp, black leather jackets, the tight polo necks, and the Presley-style hair, replaced with patchwork coats, jeans, waistcoats, and an endless array of battered hats atop his tousled head. His stage-wear was equally eclectic: check out these images, taken from the Picnic Concert at the Blackbushe Aerodrome, in ’78.
Defiantly unpredictable, Dylan began a three-year period as a Born Again Christian, in 1979. Slow Train Coming began a trilogy of albums that dabbled in gospel music and featured lyrics that investigated Christianity, sin, and redemption. However, this seemed to pass in 1981, with Dylan remarking that “Jesus himself only preached for three years.”
For many of the longer-established bands, the Eighties were a period of confusion and creative bluntness. The Rolling Stones were noodling about with disco, Led Zeppelin’s surviving members struggled to reinvent themselves and, after two gospel albums, Dylan too seemed lost in a sea of synthesisers and New Romanticism. In retrospect, he felt burnt-out: “I was kidding myself, exploiting whatever talent I had beyond breaking point. I’d known it for a while. The previous 10 years left me pretty whitewashed and wasted.”
However, for someone who wasn’t feeling at the peak of his powers, Dylan managed to keep the musical wheels turning and released five albums. While they divided die-hards and possibly didn’t win him any new fans, there are some superb tracks to be found among the releases, such as Most of the Time, Sweetheart Like You and Dark Eyes.
In 1987, Dylan got the creative shot in the arm he needed. Approached by his friend, Tom Petty, who had, in turn, been approached by George Harrison, Dylan was asked to join the supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys, which also counted Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne among their number.
Fusing Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, folk and The Beatles, the Wilburys chalked up a series of hits, until disbanding in 1990, after Orbison’s death, two years earlier.
Although he’d been revitalised by his time in the Traveling Wilburys, it wasn’t until 1997 that the music world began to sit up and take notice of Dylan once again. As Britpop was giving way to Girl Power and Boy Bands, he released Time Out of Mind.
Tonally, the album comes from a man questioning life, death and everything that matters in between. While it might lack the upbeat jangle of his Sixties and Seventies self, it sees his poetic sensibilities rising back to the surface, if tinged with the kind of weariness that only the middle-aged understand. Bluesy, melancholy, and dark, it might not be a party album, but it saw Dylan re-establish himself as a force to be reckoned with.
2006’s Modern Times was much more laid-back, by comparison, relying on Southern Americana and rockabilly to give songs such as Spirit on the Water and Workingman’s Blues #2 a determined chug that seemed to reflect the idea that Dylan was becoming more comfortable in his own skin.
With six further albums (including a collection of Christmas songs) under his grizzled belt, Dylan’s latest outing, Rough and Rowdy Ways, has pulled the rug from under the carpet from anyone who thought he should be consigned to the past. Hailed as “arguably his grandest poetic statement yet,” will go down as strange, fun, and fascinating, but classic.
That was the Music Poster guide to Bob Dylan in eight of our favourite images. If you think we’ve overlooked any outstanding events in this extraordinary artist’s life, let us know in the comments below!